Voyager Has Left The Building

A couple of cool things got me thinking this week. If you haven’t seen it, here’s a link to a video pieced together by NASA from images captured by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been circling the Moon since 2009. The video gives us a chance to see the Moon as a spinning globe. It does spin like the Earth does, except the speed of its rotation is such that the same half is always facing the Earth—we never get to see the far side at all. Somehow this view makes it special in a way that static photographs can’t.

One day human explorers will go back to the Moon—we’ll probably build colonies and mine its dusty surface for rocket fuel. There may even be tourism, if people can be convinced that there are things that are fun to do in one-sixth of Earth’s gravity (let’s just leave their imaginations to work on that one, shall we?) And remember the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey with the monolith dug up on the Moon that screams out a warning to the aliens that humans have made it that far into space? Which brings me to the second cool thing…

NASA announced last Thursday that the Voyager 1 spacecraft had finally left the solar system—or at least it’s left the heliosphere, the sun’s main zone of more energetic gases for the denser and more placid elemental particles of interstellar space. Technically, it still has to pass through the Oort Cloud, which is considered both a part of the solar system and interstellar space. At 18.2 billion kilometers from Earth, it’s by far the most distant man-made object, and as it continues on into the space between the stars is it possible that it could encounter explorers of an alien race? That was the premise of the movie Star Trek: The Motion Picture: Voyager was altered by a race of intelligent machines and sent back to Earth, where it mainly provided an excuse for endless sequences of expensive special effects. On the remote chance that such an encounter could happen, the real Voyager was equipped with a unique gold record (like Elvis and the Beatles had on their walls in great numbers) which incorporated pictures and sounds of Earth as well as important messages from some VIP’s at the time. Think about it—that could very well be the first human-made object investigated by an alien intelligence.

A gold record. From 1987. That needs a special phonograph to play it.

Will the aliens say something like, “Hey, that’s a cool little trinket”? Or something more like, “Damn tourists—think they can toss their trash just anywhere”?

And if they are inspired to come and meet us, remember that Voyager itself contains 1987 technology, including an 8-track tape recorder and computers with 240,000 times less memory than your iPhone. Couldn’t that be kind of embarrassing? That would be like me finally getting to pitch an idea to James Cameron only to find him holding a picture of me wearing a mullet.

But then, if they’ve intercepted our TV broadcasts it’s all over anyway. Three’s Company, anyone?